By MARCY STAMPER
In two hearings in five days, the Okanogan County commissioners opened hundreds of miles of roads around the county to all-terrain vehicles (ATVs).
The actions were in response to a new state law regulating ATVs that took effect July 28.
For some people who spoke at the packed public hearings, opening more county roads to ATVs means not having to tow the vehicles 120 extra miles before they can use them, while to others it will encourage people to ride the vehicles where they are not permitted.
Some see ATVs as bringing cash to local businesses, although others worry that they will harm the Methow because its economy is based on non-motorized recreation. Some fret that the vehicles pose safety risks to everyone on the roads.
In the end, it boiled down to an issue of fairness, according to County Commissioner Jim DeTro. “The roads we’re talking about are public roads – that’s been my contention from the beginning,” he said. “It’s an equal opportunity to operate on a public road. It’s discrimination to single out one type of vehicle.”
DeTro and commissioner Sheilah Kennedy voted on Monday (July 29) to open all county roads with a speed limit of 35 miles per hour (mph) or lower to ATVs (also called off-road vehicles, or ORVs). Commissioner Ray Campbell was not present at that public hearing.
The unanimous vote was the second in five days by the commissioners, who on Thursday (July 25) opened 299.57 miles of county roads with speed limits above 35 mph to ATVs, despite questions raised by several speakers at the hearing about whether the commission’s action was legal under existing law or under the new state law regulating ATVs.
“On the legal issues, we’ve heard both sides. When it comes to that, I guess we let the courts decide,” said Commissioner Campbell, before moving to approve the ordinance opening those roads last week.
The two votes addressed different aspects of expanding areas for ATV riders. The first vote was in response to a petition from the North Central ATV Club to open specific roads around the county to ORVs with speed limits above 35 mph, including 70 miles of roads in the Methow Valley.
The commissioners held a second public hearing on Monday based on the new state law that allows local governments to open roads with a speed limit of 35 mph or less to ATVs. The law went into effect on Sunday (July 28), although the Washington Department of Licensing has said it cannot meet licensing requirements until March, effectively delaying the start date.
Different rules for different speeds?
According to some interpretations of the law – which sets a procedure for opening roads 35 mph or lower to ATVs – the commissioners’ action last week allows ATVs on roads with higher speed limits, since those roads were opened by ordinance before the law took effect. Others claim that the law does not permit ATVs on higher-speed roads at all and have threatened legal action.
Both supporters and opponents of opening more roads to ATVs have questions about the law, including whether it applies only to roads opened before Jan. 1 of this year, whether it includes primitive roads, and whether the portions of Highway 20 in Winthrop and Twisp will be open to ORVs without approval by the towns.
Some speakers at Thursday’s hearing accused the commissioners of attempting to pre-empt the new law by voting to open the higher-speed roads only three days before the new law took effect.
“Our laws shouldn’t be so complicated that a lay person has to hire an attorney to understand them,” said Roxie Miller of Winthrop after Monday’s hearing. Miller testified against opening the additional roads to ATVs at both hearings, saying that the commissioners should carefully evaluate conditions on individual roads to see if they are suitable.
“I think if you do pass this … you will open yourself to lawsuits, which will cost everyone here – ATV owners and non-ATV owners – money,” said Winthrop resident Nick Ahlfs about the proposal to open higher-speed roads to ATVs.
Several speakers noted that the state law had passed with overwhelming approval in the Legislature after years of negotiations. The law strengthens enforcement by requiring license tags and requires safety equipment including lights and turn signals on any vehicle used on roadways.
Several speakers noted that bicycles can use almost any road in the state without special licenses or age requirements. Some cited situations where cyclists and other vehicles amicably share roads, while others called cyclists a hazard.
Hundreds of comments
The first hearing about high-speed roads drew about 70 people, with 16 testifying against opening the roads and 12 in favor. Most of the opponents were from the Methow Valley and cited concerns about safety issues, about ATV riders violating laws, and about environmental damage. Supporters cited economic benefits and greater access for different types of recreation.
The hearing on the 35-mph roads attracted only half as many people, and 12 of the 19 who spoke were in favor of opening the roads. Fourteen people from the Methow provided testimony and were evenly split on the issue.
Verlene Hughes of Okanogan County Public Works said she had received about 350 comments on the two proposals.
In addition to the economic benefits and the principle of universal access, supporters pointed to the volunteer trail maintenance and campground clean-ups they perform.
“We have a right to the roads – we pay for them,” said Larry Malcolm of Winthrop.
Opponents cited safety concerns, saying the vehicles are not designed for use on pavement, and urged the commissioners to study conditions on individual roads rather than open them all at once.
Melanie Rowland, testifying for the Methow Valley Citizens’ Council, said that opening all the roads created a confusing patchwork of roads with varying speed limits that connect to roads managed by other agencies, encouraging unlawful behavior.
Sam Owen, president of the Friends of Bear Creek, said that commissioner Kennedy’s statement that roads can be closed if problems occur was not adequate, since she has already seen people riding in unauthorized areas.
Members of the ATV Club said they would police the area to control illegal or environmentally destructive behavior.
Paul Tillman, a club member from Winthrop, said after the hearing that they share the concerns of environmental groups about reckless ATV use. “We don’t want to see ATVers riding in the wilderness,” he said.
Questions on law, timing
Numerous questions remain about the 38-page state law and which roads it covers – whether ATVs can ride on primitive roads, and whether it includes roads opened between January and the end of July. There are also questions about whether roads open to ATVs must connect to an ORV recreation facility, which the law defines as including “ORV trails, trailheads, campgrounds, ORV sports parks, and ORV use areas.”
Asked after last week’s hearing about the legality of the commission’s action opening roads above 35 mph, Commissioner Campbell said they had “run stuff by our civil deputy [attorney]” Steven Bozarth. “There is a broad description of ‘ATV facility,’” Campbell said, which “may not be defined until it does go to court.”
The legislative and policy director for the Department of Licensing sent a letter to the sponsoring legislators on July 9, after the law was signed by the governor, notifying them that the agency would not be able to meet the July 28 effective date of the law.
ORV riders must also have documentation from an ATV dealer or repair shop that the vehicle has been outfitted with the required safety equipment.
Because ORV riders must already have an off-highway vehicle registration and decals, ATV club member Tillman wondered about the delay.
The roads included in the petition from the ATV group opened by the commissioners last week include East and West Chewuch roads, Twisp-Winthrop East County Road, Twisp River Road, Twisp-Carlton Road, Patterson Lake Road and Gold Creek Loop Road.